Thursday, November 14, 2013

Review of The Postman by David Brin

If anything, living outside the US this past decade has given me a new perspective on my homeland.  Having consumed buckets of foreign culture, American culture now reflects in a different light.  One difference is that perhaps nothing is more identifiable than the typical American movie.  I’m not a saying this perspective is available only to those outside the US, only that the contrast becomes more vivid when one sees films, reads books, and participates in a worldview which does not take the idealized hero and happy ending as its starting point for quality entertainment.  Though writing with the best of intentions to subvert the idea, it would seem David Brin in his 1985 The Postman failed to fully extricate himself from the box he set to escape.  Tripping over its own ambition, the book can be enjoyed for story and appreciated for ambition, but when examined any deeper crumbles for lack of literary skill.

It’s the future and WWIII has happened.  Nuclear weaponry razing the Eastern US, a large EMP blast destroyed what solid-state tech remained across the country.  Stragglers surviving in pockets and alone, humanity has been forced to revert to pre-civilization, a retro wild-west scenario the result.  Escaping the destruction of the East and currently making his way through Oregon to a society rumored to be establishing civilization once again is Gordon Krantz.  A drama major at university, his ambitions were cut short by the war.  Never sacrificing principle to join the savage hordes plaguing the land, he likewise meets with rejection at the various small communities he encounters—an extra mouth more a burden than help.  And making matters worse, at the outset of the story Krantz is robbed of all his possessions, save the clothes on his back.

But The Postman would not be The Postman were Krantz not to stumble across an abandoned USPS mail truck, the driver’s skeleton still in the seat.  Desperate times calling for desperate measures, Krantz buries the bones and takes the emblematic coat and jacket for himself, throwing the mail sack over his shoulder and continuing on his way.  At the next community he stumbles upon, Krantz is lucky enough to have a letter from one of the relatives in the sack, and passes himself off as a member of the restored US government to gain entrance, a hot meal, and a warm bed.  The fraud successful in other communities also, Krantz begins to build a network of communication amongst the civilized enclaves that remain—a la Johnny Appleseed.  But it isn’t until rebelling against the Holnists (2nd Amendment freaks seeking to legalize Social Darwinism) that his legend begins to take shape.

An American through and through, Brin makes no bones about his appreciation and criticism for the country.  On one hand are quotes like:No, home meant more to Gordon than any particular place. A hamburger, a hot bath, music, Merthiolate . . . . . . a cool beer . . .” while on the other there is an obvious dislike for the malevolent elements, like gun freaks and anti-social behavior.  The Holnists in particular seem to represent everything Brin dislikes about strong right wing conservatism.  But what really makes Brin represent his nation is the open manner in which he dares to be optimistic:

"The nation I spoke of smolders under the ashes, ready, if you help, to cast its light again. To lead a silent world back to hope. Believe it, and the future will be decided here, tonight. For if America ever stood for anything, it was people being at their best when times were worst—and helping one another when it counted most."
As such, Brin has chosen a relevant subtext.  The civilized communities representing the so-called left of today’s political arena and the survivalists the right, the resulting clash is the stuff—or at least potential stuff—of good science fiction.  The background ideologies and characters who represent each are located nicely within the narrative, proving The Postman at least well planned.  The ideological landscape consisting of black, white, and gray, Brin does not fall victim to any good vs. evil scenario, and the solution proffered is one not only optimistic, but wholly realistic in terms of actual applicability to life outside of science fiction.

But for as insightful as Brin’s ideas are regarding politics and society, problems appear shortly into the novel with other aspects, more cropping up thereafter.  Inconsistent characterization is the first.  The best done to make Krantz an unwilling hero (mainly by equivocating his decisions), there is nevertheless a lack of uniformity to his deeper character.  For example, passive when receiving a grave insult one moment, he flies off off the handle the next at the slightest taunt—character in turn taking a backseat to plot.  Likewise troublesome is dialogue and exposition. Check the following:

    “Gordon laughed. "You're unfair to yourself. I had to take introductory physics twice. Anyway, Cyclops must know what he's doing, putting you in this job."
    This brought a reddening to Dena's face as she blushed and looked down. "Yes, well, I suppose so."
    Modesty? Gordon wondered. This one is full of surprises. I wouldn't have expected it.”

Such quotes read like high school romance.  Repeating the ‘blush’ idea twice in the same sentence is also not the most refined of text, nor is the “Anyways…”.  This type of unrealistic conversation, internal monologue, and overt description exist nearly throughout the novel, distracting from the ideas under discussion.

Another concern is story pacing, particularly the interweaving of backstory with present narrative.  The transitions almost always awkward, Brin even goes so far as to interrupt the epistolaries by switching back to the present, resuming the letter some paragraphs later.  This is not to say the tactic is bad, rather that Brin’s handling of it is.  As such, the novel would have benefited from either a smoother blending or outright isolation of these elements.  Another pacing problem is the effectiveness of scenes, or perhaps vice versa.  Krantz taking on the role of mailman, he naturally travels to many places.  Some are described in detail, some are not, ultimately leaving the feeling of place incomplete.  There is one scene in particular which sticks out: Krantz’s encounter with Cyclops, the resurrected AI.  Brin injecting the narrative with tension in the build up to Krantz’s his first meeting with the computer brain, the resulting conversation when they eventually is anti-climactic—over after a few short, largely irrelevant sentences.  Brin better to have given the conversation more substance or downgraded the tension building, by walking the fence he proves either unaware of the scene’s potential or unaware of the underlying direction and purpose to the narrative.

Thematically, the problems only continue, particularly Brin’s attempt to include a feminist agenda.  Such ideology worthy of inclusion in a story, characters, however, need to behave in complementary fashion to validate the ideas being promoted.  Brin seemingly unable to get out of his own way, there are several moments which in fact juxtapose the very concepts he’s attempting to put in the spotlight.  If the handful of woman who Krantz beds in the communities he visits aren’t enough, there is one scene wherein a woman is attempting to convince him that women can fight.  The problem is, while explaining herself, she is playing the Betty Crocker wife, soothing his aching back and pushing sex upon him to ease his weariness after a long day—the quintessential male fantasy, no more, no less.  At another point, specifically an exciting chase scene in a river featuring Krantz escaping with two women, Brin writes the following to enlighten the reader on feminism: “Marcie's borrowed clothes stuck to the blond concubine in ways that Gordon might have found interesting had he not been so miserable.”  Nothing says feminism like turning women into sex objects in the middle of your action scenes.  And if all that weren’t enough, it turns out the woman’s actions had a man at the root all along:  "She's doing it out of love, Mr. Inspector. I think she's doing it for you alone." a character advises Krantz.  Suffice to say, Brin never plays his cards effectively, some seeming to be held facing the reader when they could have been better affected.

I know this review is getting a bit long, but before closing, something needs be said of The Postman’s climax.   It’s cheesy.  A classic plot device if ever their were (capture the good guy, but instead of killing him, leave him alone in a room to escape), the fight scene which ensues takes on X-Men proportions, and yes, is resolved in fine American hero fashion.  The very stuff super-hero films are made of, I’m not certain Brin’s solutions are as relevant as he would have them.

In the end, The Postman is written with the best of ideological intentions but is ensnared in a B-move script, thus failing to allow the concepts aimed at to be realized via storytelling.  A novel of symbols and legend, The Postman is a wearying book for its continual reader hand-holding regarding the ills of America.  Not as overtly jingoistic as Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, Brin does offer a good solution to the ills plaguing America.   But that the solution is built using some of the poorest literary techniques fiction offers, causes the book to fall short of convincing.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is an example of post-apocalyptic literature which arrives at a loosely similar point but holds water in how the style and presentation support the core argument.  Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny also has a loosely similar premise, and is supported by coherent plot.  Though not as ambitious, it succeeds for its directness.  Better yet is Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow.  A post-nuclear story that puts technology on the stand for human value, the reader is better off picking up her instead, that is, unless that American hero story is your thing.

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